I scratched at an odd prickling sensation at the base of my skull and took a deep breath. My strength is their strength. My resolve is their resolve. What I give to them now must carry them through the night to come. Do not falter now. I looked over the faces of the men and women assembled before me and knew that many of them would never see the light of day again. On my orders, they will die. By what right do I send them to their death?
I took the final step onto the podium and raised my right arm above my head. Dancing lights flitted across the assembled onlookers as the sputtering braziers reflected off of my upraised shield. My symbol. My namesake. My authority. While the perfectly polished outer surface of the shield faced the crowd, I stared at the intricate system of gears and levers attached to my hand. My failure. My shame. The intrusive thoughts began to prickle at the edge of my mind, and I shook away the feeling and lowered my arm. No. My strength is their strength now.
“Men and women of Kaldan,” I shouted, projecting my voice to the very back of the assembly with a practiced power. “I stand before you tonight in awe of your bravery. You have answered the call to action with strength, courage, and selfless conviction. You have assembled to stem the tide of darkness encroaching on our lands, though it is not your job to do so. Those who pledged to keep this country safe from all evils have forsaken their oaths. You have taken their places; not by obligation, but by choice. By witness of the Primes, I swear that each and every one of you is more honorable than any knight I have ever met.”
The crowd rippled as the armored men and women nodded their heads in agreement. “You know what awaits us within Shadowmine. You have seen them with your own eyes; many of you have lost friends, neighbors, and loved ones to the unholy beasts known as Serathids.” A low murmur rumbled through the crowd as the shared pain of Kaldan echoed in each of their chests. “But you also know this: Serathids can be killed. You have seen this with your own eyes as well.”
Enthusiastic shouts of “Holy Shield!” and “Commander Sesaude!” called back at me. During the hard march north from Yoria, we encountered a solitary Serathids only a day’s journey out from the capitol. The majority of the volunteer army was made up of refugees from the northern towns of Kaldan, where the beasts had wandered unopposed for weeks. Fearing that any losses would permanently discourage the newly assembled force, I had faced it alone, taking only a minor wound to my left forearm for the effort. The boost in morale at seeing the Serathid fall was so powerful that we reached the mine an entire day ahead of schedule, despite the terrible traveling conditions on the unkempt roads.
I raised my shield above my head again, and the crowd gradually grew quiet once again. “I cannot say for certain what we will face within the mine. Only the dead hold those secrets. But, intel or not, our objectives remain the same: Eliminate the Serathid threat, or, if the enemy force proves too powerful, collapse Shadowmine permanently.” The contingency plan was not one I relished. The vast majority of Kaldan’s usable ores and gemstones came from the single network of mines beneath the twin mountains, and would devastate the country for years to come if lost. I will pay any cost to save this country. I owe them that, at least.
“If we are to succeed tonight, I will need the help of each and every one of you. Men and women of Kaldan, can I put my faith in you to carry us through the night?” A loud chorus of shouts answered me. “Will you shield me, as I have shielded you?” Another round of cheers echoed through the night, louder and more synchronous than the first. “Will you enter history with me tonight as the bravest army ever assembled?” The passionate roar that filled my ears strengthened my resolve, and convinced me, just for a moment, that our plan would succeed.
“Ready your gear. Collect your thoughts. Make your peace, and ask your blessings from the Primes.” I looked over the assembled faces one final time. “Join me at the entrance when you are ready, and we will cleanse this evil from the world once and for all.” I snapped to attention and banged my shield against the wooden platform beneath my feet. “Dismissed!”
The assembly burst into action as the men and women prepared for our imminent assault. Some formed teams to lift short segments of spiked barricades, which they carried towards the small, unassuming cave entrance at the base of the mountain beside us. Many dashed to various tents or supply crates to gather one final piece of equipment, or to sharpen their weapons one final time. Others knelt down in the snow to offer silent prayers to the Primes and beg for protection.
You should not be here. I watched them from my place of elevation with a growing feeling of sadness in my heart. This is not your fight, and yet, you are here. Had I not been so blind, perhaps I could have prevented this entirely. I could have seen Virram’s scheming with his Council, and put an end to it. And yet...I did not. My eyes turned from the camp before me towards the darkness to the west. Had I not been so blind, they would be here beside me. We could have finished this without further need for Kaldan’s blood. Just the three of us.
A loud bang pulled me out of my introspection as two men carrying supply crates collided with one another. The time for regret has passed. Only action remains. I hopped down from the makeshift stage and followed the line of torches that led to the mine entrance. For the main thoroughfare of the most active mine in Kaldan, it was an unassuming thing: a roughhewn wooden frame that supported a tunnel only ten feet in diameter, with a parallel set of iron tracks leading into the darkness. Though it was no different from the darkness of the night around me, I felt a chill sense of foreboding from the inky blackness within the mine.
I scratched again at the back of my neck as the bizarre prickling feeling continued to grow in strength. Do not let your nerves distract you, I thought to myself as I took in a measured breath. I will lead this army to success, or to failure. Their lives rest on my shoulders. Kaldan rests on my shoulders. The idea pressed down on me with a tangible weight, but it took my mind off the buzzing at the base of my skull. It ends tonight, one way or another.
“Commander,” a gruff voice called out from behind me. I turned to find an old man in mismatched plate and scale armor standing in a stiff salute. His thick white beard ballooned out from beneath a heavy half helm, covering the worn family crest on his cuirass. “Your support division is ready.”
“Thank you, Gerard,” I nodded, scanning past him to his assembled crew. A small group of soldiers stood around a hefty pile of supplies near the mine entrance. Spiked barricades, oil urns, and heavily reinforced lanterns made up a vast majority of the collected support materials, all packed on pallets and crates with improvised carrying slings. “Gather the remainder of my captains and bring them here when they are ready.”
“No need!” a sprightly voice cried. “We are already here and ready to serve, Commander.” The voice belonged to a young man with a sharp, chiseled face, sparkling yellow eyes, and fiery orange hair that fell down past his shoulders. Bryce was no older than twenty, and had a passion for combat despite never having participated in anything more than friendly sparring matches. His enthusiasm had brought him forward to volunteer as head of the vanguard for the Shadowmine operation, and although I had my misgivings, his charisma and ability to inspire other men were too invaluable to pass up. “Your vanguard is ready to receive orders.”
“Mining company ready to serve, ma’am, as is the defensive infantry,” said Rex, the former owner of a small mining outfit near the maw and the current leader of the mining division for our assault. He clapped a hand on the shoulder of a tall, spindley girl who stood beside him in heavily padded chainmail. His daughter, Challa, was a fresh-faced recruit to the city guard in Yoria, but had abandoned her newly appointed post to join in our reclamation efforts.
“Ready to serve, ma’am,” she echoed her father, stamping her tower shield against the ground. A moment later, the noise repeated a dozen times over as her following of defensive infantrymen mimicked the gesture.
I eyed the full assembly one final time. We have come too far to turn back now. I strode towards the entrance of the mine, then turned sharply and raised my shield above my head. “Men and women of Kaldan, we stand upon the precipice of action. Once these fires are lit, there is no turning back. I ask you now, in sight of all the Primes: Will you stand with me tonight?” An impassioned chorus of cheers answered me. Satisfied, I motioned to Gerard at the front of the crowd, and he stepped forward with a flaming torch in each hand. He approached the cave entrance and lowered a torch to a large metal sconce set into the wall.
Brilliant flames leapt from the inset sconce and rushed along a channel in the cave wall, illuminating the darkness of the tunnel before us. He quickly crossed the entrance and lit the matching sconce on the opposite side to similar effect, then hurried back to his place in the formation. Adrenaline began to pump through my veins as I stared down the flickering mineshaft, watching the flames travel until they gradually disappeared into the distance. It has begun. The buzzing in my spine grew more intense, and I grit my teeth against the feeling. Nerves cannot stop us now.
I turned back to my army and banged my heavily gauntleted fist against my shield. “Tonight, we rid the world of this evil forever!” I shouted, raising my fist into the air. A hundred different battlecries rang out at once as I turned back to the mine entrance, keeping my hand above my head in preparation to send the army forward. I closed my eyes and took what I knew would be the final peaceful breath of my life.
In the moment before I threw my hand forward, the tingling at the base of my skull resolved into a crackling, disjointed voice inside my head. Don’t. Go. Inside. My blood ran cold as I stood locked in place, stunned into momentary inaction by the ominous warning. Dormant synapses flared to life within my brain as I desperately tried to link the voice to one I knew. A voice I was desperate to hear, but knew I never would again.
The moment passed, and I reopened my eyes, suddenly more set in my resolve than I had been seconds before. Tonight, I make amends. I gave the forward signal with a mighty bellow, then charged into mine headfirst. Hundreds of heavy footfalls echoed behind me as I ran, but they slowly fell away as I outpaced them in my all out sprint. I tightened my grip on my shield as I ran and felt a comforting tingle in my arm; as in every battle before, the artifact seemed to sharpen my mind and prepare me for the combat ahead.
The first Serathid nearly caught me by surprise as it came into view around a particularly sharp corner, already alerted to our presence and charging out to meet us. As I had hoped, the narrow entrance tunnel restricted the beast from its full range of movement, and it began our fight with a single horizontal swing of its bladed forearm. I caught the strike on the outer edge of my shield as I began to twirl, using the momentum of the attack to quickly spin around to face its exposed midsection. The twirl ended with a devastating blow against its chitinous body that sent it stumbling into the opposite wall. Before it could recover, I kicked off of the tunnel behind me and launched into a followup attack, landing the harsh edge of my shield directly on the cracked impact point of the first blow. Its shell snapped and collapsed, and I felt a satisfying, secondary crack as its spine broke. The beast fell to the ground without so much as a shudder, and I gave my shield a hard spin to clear the dark ichor from its edge.
My battle had only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough time for Bryce and the rest of the vanguard to catch up with me. At the sight of the dead Serathid, they all let out a victorious yell, and I continued deeper into the mine with the three dozen soldiers close behind me. The echoing noise of our advance began to deepen in tone as the tunnel widened, and we quickly found ourselves at the site of our first main objective: Shadowmine’s Nexus, where countless tunnels and mining elevators all met in a single, cavernous space. A blazing channel circled around each side of the cave, but the ceiling and center of the massive space remained shrouded in murky darkness. Four Serathids scuttled towards us from the back of the room, nearly disappearing as they entered the half-dark center of the cavern.
“Vanguard, hold!” I shouted, banging my shield on the stone floor. A subconscious section of my brain maintained rough positions for each of the nearby soldiers under my command through the nervous scuffing and scraping of their boots and armor, and I took small, shifting steps to better reposition myself around them for the incoming attack as I waited for my next signal. The sound of our reinforcements charging in behind us sent a wave of relief through my body, and I lunged forward with another warcry as the second phase of our reclamation began. “Charge!”
I led the vanguard forward to stop our foes with a head-on attack in hopes that our defensive line would have time to set up behind us. Breaking away from the main force, I dashed to the left where one of the Serathids had veered away from our assault in an attempt to catch us in a pincer. My abrupt change in course drew a second beast away from the pack, splitting their forces evenly between me and the entirety of the vanguard. Knowing I would be flanked by the reinforcing Serathid in mere moments, I sprinted harder towards my first target in an effort to capitalize on the solo engagement while I had the chance.
The beast reared up onto its hind legs and launched towards me with both scythes pointed directly at my head. I slid down onto one knee and planted my shield against the cave floor, then braced my shoulder against the metal as the attack landed. The full weight of the Serathid’s attack crashed into me, and I roared in exertion as I fought back against the assault. I rose to my feet with a final burst of energy and threw the beast back into an off-balance teeter. My shield flew out along its geared tracks and whipped skyward in a brutal uppercut that caught the Serathid full in the face, knocking it onto its back.
The glittering shield continued in an arc over my head and came down just in time to catch a sideways cut from the flanking beast. Without proper time to brace myself against the attack, it threw me to the side, and I skidded along the stone in a low crouch. The separation gave the upended Serathid time to regain its footing, and the pair charged me in unison a moment later. A burst of adrenaline slowed the world around me as I prepared my counterattack. Glance parry the first with fourth switch, momentum transfer over the second, disable movement, re-engage first, repel, finish the second, finish the first.
Time jerked to double speed as the battle commenced. I feinted a dodge to my left as I slid right, baiting a downward stab from the left Serathid. The attack was well wide of my position, but I reached out with my shield to catch the blow regardless. As the bladed arm made contact, I depressed one of the levers in the intricate mechanical grip of my shield, and the force of the blow set the stained glass disc whirling around its midpoint. I launched into a sideways flip as the telltale swish of a blade through air hissed out from behind me. The second beast’s scythe grazed along the armor on my back as I passed over it and continued to careen towards the attacker. At the midpoint of my jump, I flipped another switch, and the shield immediately locked back into place; its sudden change of momentum yanked me forward, and I rolled onto the back of the second Serathid.
I took a knee on my unwilling mount and raised the shield over my head before bringing it down with both hands onto the beast’s left hind leg. The chitin and bone beneath shattered all at once, and the Serathid tilted dangerously to one side, dumping me into a controlled roll along the ground. I landed beneath the wounded beast’s companion and stared directly into the monster’s hideously distorted face. Thick strands of pale orange spittle dripped onto my face from the beast’s cavernous circular mouth as it struggled to reposition itself to a more advantageous position. I pushed myself up on my shield and threw a punch with my heavy gauntlet, connecting directly between the beast’s empty eye sockets.
The blow knocked loose a hail of small chitinous shards that pelted my face as the monster reeled in pain. Its bladed arms rose and fell dangerously close to my face as it launched a volley of panicked attacks, seemingly unable to accurately locate me despite my immediate proximity. Failing in its repeated attempts to stab me, it suddenly lowered its central body and began to gnash its multiple rows of teeth as it closed in on my face. I repeated my earlier attack again and again, bashing the Serathid’s broken face with my fist until its foul, dark ichor coated my hand and splattered across my face. With a final, triumphant roar, I broke through the beast’s skull and embedded my fist in its brain.
It gave a single, violent spasm as I withdrew my arm, then collapsed. I rolled out from beneath it a second before its hulking weight crunched against the cavern floor, where it remained unmoving. My body begged for respite, but I pushed myself to my feet and turned to face my remaining foe. A bladed arm was there to meet me, flying in a pointed stab directly towards my chest. I barely had time to raise my shield enough to catch the blow, and the attack violently jarred my shoulder, sending a sharp spike of pain all the way back to my spine. Gritting my teeth, I hopped onto the back of the dead Serathid and pushed onwards, circling left around my prey to force pressure onto its broken hind leg.
Despite its injury, the beast continued to launch a flurry of vicious strikes as it backpedaled. I parried each blow with increasing ferocity, quickly flicking an array of levers to rock my shield side to side along its geared tracks in order to block the monster’s fearsome range. After a particularly extended overhead strike, the beast stumbled and fell backwards onto its wounded leg, and I pressed my advantage in a flash. My shielded rocketed out to smash against its torso, then bounced back to add even more momentum to my unarmed punch. The pair of blows stunned the beast into inaction and gave me enough time to bring my shield down edge first onto its back. It struggled feebly to regain its footing, and another downward strike ended its suffering permanently.
A gurgling scream cut short my desperately needed moment of rest before it began. In my intense focus, I had shut out everything apart from my immediate surroundings, and it took me a few seconds to catch up with the rest of the world. A fight between my vanguard and the remaining two Serathids had taken place parallel to my own, and was nearing its own conclusion as I sprinted across the cavern to assist. One of the beasts had been slain, and the other looked as though it would soon follow, but the victory had come at a cost; five men laid dead on the stone floor, and another half dozen limped away from the battle with vicious, bloody wounds.
Bryce held up his sword in triumph as he noticed my approach. “The Shield is with us!” he cried. “With me, men! We will not fail!” His orange hair burned in the flickering torch light as he pushed to the front of the vanguard, leading a renewed charge at the remaining Serathid. The beast flailed as it bled from innumerable cuts, slashing in wide strikes in an effort to catch as many soldiers as possible. One of its bladed arm cut through a portly man garbed in chainmail and snagged on his spine; the momentary hesitation was all the front line needed to advance and pierce the beast’s shelled body with a half dozen stabs, and it fell to the ground after a final, pitiful shudder.
A warhorn blasted out from the cave entrance as I regrouped with the vanguard. We may yet live to see the morning. “Fall back to the defensive line!” I shouted, waving the men back. While we were fighting, the defensive infantry had moved into position behind us, forming three equal ranks of soldiers positioned equidistant from the cave entrance. Large rows of spiked barricades stood behind them in a tight circle, with a final group of soldiers as a last wall of defense should the perimeter somehow be breached. I made my way to the front formation and addressed the woman holding the horn. “Challa.”
“Commander,” she nodded. “Everyone is in position. Mining is underway; Father—Rex says Shadowmine’s construction lends well to a collapse,” she reported, correcting herself. “We’re only a few minutes out from completion.”
“Good. Hold ranks here and continue to relay—”
“Commander!” Bryce cried from the formation on our right. “More of them, at the tunnels!” Challa and I snapped to attention and stared across the dark expanse of the mine. Where the various mineshafts all met at the far wall, three shadowy figures scuttled back and forth in the darkness. As we watched, their numbers swelled from three to four, then to six, then seven, and beyond. The Serathids hung back at the opposite side of the cavern, shifting in and out of sight in a teeming mass too difficult to properly count, but made no move to advance on our position.
“Stand your ground!” I bellowed to my gathered forces. “We will hold this entrance at all costs. We will not falter! We will not fail!” I banged the edge of my shield against the ground in a constant rhythm, and the cave soon echoed with hundreds of stomping spears, boots, and shields. Just a few minutes more and we will be rid of this Primes-damned scourge for good.
Challa shuffled closer to my place at the head of the formation. “Commander?” she asked, her voice nearly drowned out by the pounding beat. “What are they doing?”
“I...do not know,” I answered, shaking my head. “They appear to be waiting for something. Perhaps there are more of them down below.”
“Can we, uhm...can we hold off that many?”
“Yes,” I said firmly, “we can. We hold the advantage in our formation, and we will be prepared when they charge. When Rex signals the tunnels are ready, we will retreat immediately; we need not lose more life hunting these beasts through the tunnels.”
“Yes, Commander,” Challa replied, her relief clear upon her face. “We will not fail.”
I felt the corner of my mouth begin to curl into a smile. “When this is finished, Challa, I would have a word—” A sudden, thunderous crunch shook the stone beneath my feet. I whirled to my left to find the source of the impact, and my blood turned to ice in my veins. A Serathid stood directly in the center of our leftmost formation, violently bobbing up and down after its impact with the floor. A half dozen soldiers laid at its feet, crushed down into sickening positions.
A faint whistle registered in my ears through the cries of panic around us. “ABOVE!” I screamed, grabbing Challa by the rim of her breastplate. I hurled her into the empty space ahead of us as I spun my shield into the air above my head, instinctually moving to block the attack I knew was coming. My eyes caught a glimpse of torch light reflecting off of a deadly crescent blade above me as I reached my free arm up to brace against the incoming blow. Every joint in my body popped as the weight hit me, and a roar of pain escaped my lips as the inside of my shield smashed against my face and shoulders. The weight knocked me down to one knee, but I maintained enough control to dump the beast away from my soldiers behind me.
A flurry of motion surrounded me on both sides as I kneeled on the ground, momentarily stunned. Soldiers swarmed around me and assaulted the beast I had deflected as it writhed on the ground in pain and shock. Instinct took sudden control of my body, and I threw myself up to my feet to reassess the situation. “Bryce!” I shouted, spinning towards our right flank. “Regroup the van and circle to the outside and—” My breath caught in my throat as my eyes met Bryce’s. He was suspended two feet above the ground by a glistening scythe through the center of his chest, his yellow eyes dim and lifeless as blood poured down his chest.
The entire world seemed to freeze as Bryce’s body slid from the blade and crumpled to the ground. Not like this. My stomach lurched as a fresh wave of adrenal energy jolted through me, and I shook away the panic grasping at my mind. I scanned the cave with sharpened vision, and found another round of three Serathids skittering along the cavern ceiling towards us. The remaining six on the ground pressed forward at a more cautious pace, seemingly waiting to observe the outcome of their surprise attack.
When my attention turned to the remainder of my forces, it was clear that their resolve had broken. A small contingent of fighters had held together in each formation and taken their revenge upon our surprise assailants, but a majority of the soldiers had fled towards the relative safety of the exit tunnel. No. Not soldiers, I reminded myself. Civilians. They were not prepared for this. Yet I brought them here regardless. I dashed over the slain Serathid at my feet and pulled the small warhorn from Challa’s belt as she stumbled to her feet, then put it to my lips and let out three short blasts. “Retreat!” I shouted, pointing my shield to the cave entrance. “Fortify the barricades! Block the tunnel!”
The fighters around me were more than willing to run from the advancing beasts. I grabbed Challa by the shoulder and ran back through the fortifications, weaving back and forth between the spiked barricades that surrounded the tunnel in three offset rows. The cave rang with clattering metal, heavy footfalls, and panicked gasps as my army retreated around me, forming up with their backs to the exit tunnel and cave wall until we were packed shoulder to shoulder. “Spears up! Shields up!” I commanded the frightened group. “Keep your eyes on the ceiling!”
Following my own advice, I looked up and found the advancing beasts had stopped. They hung like bats up in the darkness, with their taloned feet firmly lodged in the stone ceiling and their scythes swaying gently back and forth beneath them. Likewise, their ground forces lingered in the shadowy center of the room, slinking back and forth as they watched our desperate formation. They know. They know we cannot leave the entrance unprotected, and they will wait for reinforcements until they can crush us in a single charge. Movement at the back of the cavern confirmed my theory; another pair of Serathids emerged from a mining tunnel and clacked their way forward to join the rest of the awaiting pack.
We cannot wait; they will overwhelm us. We cannot retreat; they will slaughter us in the tunnels. We cannot charge; they will route our mining crews and surround us. Dread gripped my heart and tightened my chest, causing my breath to come harder and harder with each gasp. I failed them. I led them to their deaths in the name of my selfish quest for redemption. I failed Kaldan. I failed.
My hand clenched the grip of my shield until my knuckles popped. Lux. Lia. I failed you, too. Please forgive me. Regret grew like a gaping pit in my stomach as I watched the memories of my mission to Attetsia in my head, as I had every night since my betrayal. You would have fixed this. If not for me, you would have been here. You would have...A sudden memory sparked to life in my brain. No matter the cost. You sacrificed yourself to ensure we would succeed.
I straightened my posture and planted my shield in the ground at my feet, then bowed my head and closed my eyes. “O Prime of Light, divine above all,” I began, chanting the words with a well-practiced rhythm, “bless me with the strength to carry on through all trials and wounds, that I may protect the innocent and cleanse darkness from the world.” The patterned face of my shield shone with a brief burst of radiant white light, and I felt an electric pulse rush up my arms and down to my core. I can buy them enough time to collapse the mine. We will not fail, no matter the cost.
I turned to Challa with a renewed sense of purpose and placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “We will not fail,” I stated. “When you hear the signal, lead our forces back through the tunnel and collapse the mine. Until then, not a single Serathid breaks through our ranks. Can you promise me this?”
She blinked at me with a vacant stare. “Commander?” she asked.
“I’m giving you command, Challa. You must keep our soldiers safe, and lead them to safety. Promise me that you will.”
“Commander!” she repeated, flustered. “I can’t! Why, when you’re...I can’t do—”
“We will not fail!” I shouted, both to her and the remainder of my army. “Say it, Challa. Promise me. No matter what happens, no matter the cost, we will not fail.”
“Why me, Commander? Why would you—”
“Say it!” I gripped her shoulder more tightly. “We will not fail!” Nearby soldiers took up the chant and filled the cavern with the echoing words.
She bit her lip as her face grew red, and she scrunched her eyes shut. “We will not fail!” she cried out, knocking loose the tears at the corner of her eyes as she shook her head back and forth. “We will not fail!”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, entirely drowned out by the surrounding chant. “Primes watch over you.” Finally satisfied, I turned back towards our gathering enemies and assessed my odds. A wide smile spread across my face as I put a hand on the barricade before me. Eight of them at the least, with more on the way. I vaulted the spiked reinforcement and dashed forward, leaving Challa and the rest of my forces behind. I do not need to win. I need only to survive long enough to allow our mission to succeed.
I felt a massive weight lifting from my chest as I sprinted across the shadowy expanse towards my certain end. The din of the cavern faded away and left me in silence, apart from my fluttering heartbeat and pounding feet. This is the night I repay my debts. This is how I regain my honor. My fingers wrapped excitedly around the levers on my shield’s grip as I approached my foes, all of which had turned their bladed arms in my direction. Should we fail here tonight, stories of our sacrifice will find them. They will come to finish what I could not. I know they will. The tightness in my chest released all at once in the form of a gleeful laugh as I raised my shield arm in preparation for my final battle. My death will ensure my victory.
Three Serathids lunged forward in unison as I reached their formation, all dropping their scythes in a simultaneous hail of bladed death. With a flick of my wrist, I rotated my shield onto its horizontal axis and rested it across my shoulders as I slid forward on both knees. The stabs glanced off the glowing stained glass and pulled me further into the center beast’s reach, and I ended my slide only a few inches from its downturned face. I thrust myself back into a handstand and wrapped my legs around the joint just above the Serathid’s bladed forearm. Momentarily guarded from my surrounding foes by the beast’s own arm, I jammed my shield into the joint as I twisted my legs violently. The thinly armored limb shattered and detached under the dual assault, and the beast tipped forward, dumping me onto the ground.
I spun like a cat and landed in a low crouch beneath the Serathid’s midsection, having already prepared myself for the following moves in my gambit. In one swift motion, I snatched up the detached scythe in my free hand and lunged out to my left, darting from the cover of one bulbous carapace to the next. My brain took a single moment to admire the curved weapon in my offhand: impossibly light for such a large blade, and impossibly thin for the structural integrity I knew it held. In the next moment, the blade flashed out in front of me, cutting through both back ankles of my current cover with little resistance.
The surrounding beasts had grown wise to my strategy by the time I rolled out from beneath the thrashing, footless Serathid, and I flipped backwards over the thrashing monster to avoid another pair of overhead stabs. Three more enemies awaited me as I landed; I caught two blows against my shield, and barely deflected a third with my improvised greatsword. Without any sort of proper handle by which to hold the blade, I had gripped it near the tip at its thinnest point, and the serrated edge sliced at my palm through my heavy gauntlet. Rivulets of crimson blood forked along the blade as I lashed out at my closest foe and caught it full force in the face, leaving a glistening purple gash in the pale orange chitin.
Three ahead. Three circling. Two wounded at my back. Push in further, lead them away. Second switch, reverse, fourth lever, spin, slash, duck, fourth lever, strike, dodge, strike. The plans all screamed through my head at once as I performed a new batch of battle calculus in every changing instant. My shield rocketed ahead and slammed against the wounded Serathid, further fissuring the bloody gash in its armor. I pirouetted as the shield reversed course down its geared track, using my body’s angular momentum to rotate the aegis into place to block two more horizontal strikes. Parallel lines of heat flashed across my back as one of the flanking beasts raked me with its talons, but the pain of the cuts failed to register. Faster.
The Serathid’s raking kick knocked me sideways towards one of its swarming allies, and I narrowly dipped beneath a blade destined for my throat. Three ahead. Two left. Two right, one wounded. Slide forward, third switch, leap to—
A massive weighted caught my shoulder and slammed me into the floor face first. Swirling lights filled my vision as I scrambled away from the threat by pure instinct alone. Dropping from above. Though my eyes refused to completely clear, a momentary dimming of the firelight clued me in to the location of my nearest enemy. I rolled onto my back and brought my scythe up in a crescent slash that bisected the Serathid that stood above me. A wave of steaming viscera covered my face and further obscured my sight, and the beast’s corpse collapsed onto my chest. My impromptu sword bounced away as the breath was knocked from my lungs.
Primes preserve me now. Until my soldiers are safe. Give me strength to fight. Primes, give me strength. A burst of pain rushed up through my shield arm, burning its way through my shoulder and into my spine before it bolted down into my core like lightning. Energy crashed through every inch of my body in a sudden, overwhelming surge, and I knew my prayers had been answered. I rose to my feet and hurled the hulking Serathid corpse forward, knocking two beasts onto their backs with the unexpected projectile. Slamming my shield into the ground before me, I let out a defiant roar. “NOT YET!”
I took an ungainly step forward as my body struggled to calibrate to the new, pulsing energy in my limbs. My second step came with newfound confidence, and I scanned the ring of Serathids around me with a calm, collected eye. My third step shattered the stone beneath my feet and sent me hurtling towards the closest beast, my shield drawn back with more power than I had ever felt in my entire life. This is how they moved in the throne room. This is how Lia fought against me so easily. Her actions were blessed by the Primevals themselves.
The sudden dash placed me inside of the nearest Serathid’s guard, and I bashed its face with an earth shattering uppercut. The beast sailed up into the shadows above us and landed thirty feet away with a hard crunch. Its companions immediately converged on me, but I was already spinning away to ready my next attack. I felt like a passenger within my own body as the fight continued; my actions appeared to be predetermined, with each parry, dodge, and strike prepared and launched before I could consciously follow the line of battle through cause and effect. The Primes themselves are acting through me. They may have me, for as long as I remain alive.
Contented to spectate my own fight, I let the battle play out before me. My shield snapped from side to side to parry a half dozen blows while I shifted and slid around the Serathids in a graceful dance. Blood coated a majority of my armor from my wounded hand, back, and face, but I felt no pain from the injuries. Each successful strike propelled me faster towards my next target, and each grazing cut and jarring parry I received in turn further strengthened my resolve. Despite the dire circumstances and the inevitable end to come, I felt more alive than I had in months.
There are more of them now than when the fight began. My final stand had successfully drawn the beasts away from the exit tunnel, but it had clearly also drawn up a large pack of reinforcements from further down in the mine. Beyond the immediate seven Serathids surrounding me, another half dozen approached from the winding, shadowy tunnels, with even more scuttling towards me along the ceiling. As I watched the oncoming wave of death, a dissonant chorus of horns blasted out from the entrance and echoed throughout the cavern. The mining signal. They have completed the preparations. I...succeeded.
I looked on in amazement as my forces rushed to evacuate back into the entrance tunnel. “Go!” I shouted with a beaming smile, parrying another pair of Serathids simultaneously. “Seal the tunnel! Go!” The smile stayed on my face as I returned my focus to my final battle. My foes seemed entirely uninterested in the echoing horns or the commotion at the cave entrance; every beast in the cavern had turned their attentions towards me and swarmed in my direction. “Come and get me!” I laughed, rolling under a pair of horizontal blades. “Our fates are sealed together!” I felt the blessed energy fading from my limbs with every movement as my army retreated. My duty is complete. I have served my purpose.
The tide of the battle shifted in seconds; without the blessings of the Primevals, I was forced to act entirely in defense to avoid being immediately overwhelmed by the teeming swarm of Serathids. My shield whirled and clacked as I parried strike after strike, each one catching just a bit slower than the last. I felt oddly at peace as the circle of beasts closed in on me. I have made my amends. Pain blossomed in my left shoulder, and my arm instantly fell to my side, limp and unfeeling. Despite my failings, I will die knowing my last action was truly just. My knees buckled as I blocked an overhead blow, and I fell to the floor beneath the weight of the attacking beast. Perhaps it can serve as my absolution.
The world froze around me as a deafening crack rang in my ears, and my right arm screamed in pain. After all this time, it has finally broken. I let my arm fall, and my shield landed across my lap, its face marred by a massive fissure across the stained glass face. A fitting end for the King’s Shield. I closed my eyes as a shadow covered my face, and my chest tensed in preparation for the inevitable falling scythes.
My ears heard the sound of blood splattering across the floor, but I felt no pain. Death is more kind than I imagined. As I waited for the agony to come, I heard the sound again to my right, this time with a light scuffing of leather against stone. Before I could open my eyes to find the source, it came again from my left, then right, then left again. A burst of hot ichor splashed across my face, and a tremor shook the floor beneath me. My eyes stung with a mix of blood as I wiped my face and attempted to scan my surroundings.
When my vision returned, I found myself face to face with a dead Serathid. The beasts were slain in a perfect circle around me, all shattered, limbless, and eviscerated. I stared at the corpses in uncomprehending awe. Impossible. My eyes followed the line of slain beasts further into the cavern, and I caught a faint blur of movement in a shadowed tunnel that led into the mines.
The buzz at the base of my skull that had disappeared over the course of my fight sparked to life, and I heard a familiar voice in my head. Get out of here before they seal you in, you damned fool.
“Lux!” I cried out, lunging to my feet. “Wait, please!” I stumbled across the cavern in pursuit of the fleeting shade. I felt a faint pop in my neck, and his presence at the back of my mind began to fade. “No!” My legs burned as I sprinted into the darkness, and I quickly collapsed as my shins connected with a Serathid corpse hidden in the shadows. I bounced off of the tunnel floor, rolled to my knees, and immediately began my chase again. “Come back, pl—”
I tripped over a second slain Serathid and crashed into the ground face first. Pain erupted throughout my body as my injuries from the previous battle flared up; my faded adrenaline and Primal blessings no longer protected me from the agony, and I clenched my jaw to keep from screaming. “Please,” I begged pitifully, reaching out into the darkness, “do not leave me here.”
A faint light appeared on the tunnel wall ahead, and I fought to stay conscious as it grew brighter. From around a bend in the passage, a vibrantly glowing blue sword appeared from the darkness, followed soon after by a matched pair of radiant golden blades. Pure joy filled my chest as I watched the glowing weapons approach. “Lux, Lia,” I choked out as tears filled my eyes. “You came.”
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!